Connexus Energy Field Inspectors Brave the Elements

By Kelly Scott, contributing writer

Within four minutes of exposure to an ambient temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit, the average human hand begins showing signs that all is not well. Blood vessels constrict. As the temperature falls, fingers go numb. Dexterity suffers. Sheathed in heavy gloves, hands work better in the cold, but the bulkiness makes them ill-fit for anything much more dexterously ambitious than, say, skiing or shoveling a walk.

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For three Connexus Energy inspectors, dealing with extremities in the extremes is a daily occurrence some four months of every year. Winter wind chill temperatures in Ramsey, Minn., often drop to well below zero. The company won’t send workers out in temperatures below minus 10, but anything above that is a normal workday. Historically, this has meant braving severe cold to take 3,000 substation measurements, using a pen and clipboard.

Not anymore.

Oh, the Connexus inspectors still brave the cold—can’t do much about that—but they’ve traded the pens and clipboards for mobile computers and a mobile computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) from DataSplice. The change has sped inspector task time by 43 percent. It has reduced Connexus substation maintenance management costs by the same percentage and, most importantly for customers, has made inspection data available for analysis the day it is gathered.

Connexus Energy is Minnesota’s largest electric cooperative. Based in Ramsey, the cooperative serves more than 110,000 customers in a seven-county corridor that runs from Stillwater to St. Cloud. A few years ago, Connexus management began looking for ways to improve efficiency. Once the company had implemented a CMMS, a mobile computing solution was the logical next step.

With mobile computing devices in hand, substation inspectors could enter the 3,000 measurement points into portable computers instead of writing everything down and having to key it into a computer back at the office.

The utility was thorough in its selection process for a mobile computing system. Evaluation meant giving Connexus substation inspectors products from five vendors—including personal digital assistants, tablet-type computers and Intermec’s 740 mobile computers—and letting them simulate their work in the elements.

“It’s one thing to evaluate a device in a building, but if you’re going to use it outdoors, that’s where you need to test it. You have to see how the screen looks in the sun, and how the device handles,” said Brian Sullivan, Connexus systems analyst.

Connexus inspectors ultimately decided on the Intermec handheld computer as their favorite because of the durability and screen, among other things. “We had a number of selection criteria,” Sullivan said. “One of the inspectors is a bigger guy with big fingers. He wanted to see how his fingers hit the buttons. The Intermec unit came with a numeric keypad instead of an alphanumeric one, which has more and smaller buttons. Bigger buttons—that was a key selling point.”

Thirty-nine distribution substations are scattered across the Connexus Energy service area. Once a month, two of the three Connexus inspectors divide the territory and cover their routes over several days, visiting each substation for a detailed check. They measure such things as oil temperature, silicone condition, circuits, voltage surges and tolerances. The number of inspection points will vary by location, with some substations requiring more than 100 different data entries.

“With the old method, by the time the readings were typed into the office computer and analyzed, it might be a week or more after the measurements were taken,” Sullivan said. Equipment operating out of tolerance range would be flagged for repair. “But by then, that piece of equipment could have failed. You might have customers without power, and, obviously, that’s not good.”

Now, when an inspector arrives at a substation, he enters the location into the mobile computing device. The unit runs Microsoft Windows CE software for Pocket PC configured by Intermec partner DataSplice and Connexus developers.

“We have standard bolt-on solutions for computerized maintenance management systems, but what Connexus wanted to do was really outside of that,” said Jeff Gibson, senior solution specialist at DataSplice. “They decided to have one of our consultants go up to Ramsey and work on development and train their developers at the same time. They built the solution together during a training session.”

That training session, with DataSplice consultant Mike Johnson, lasted about eight hours. By session’s end, Connexus had implemented the product with full connectivity to the production database. Within the first two hours, Connexus designers built a complex Oracle database view that can be easily accessed on the mobile computer’s screen. It shows every inspection point in the physical order it appears during the inspector’s substation tour.

“If we didn’t have that, the inspection points would just be random. The view not only pulls in the inspection points by substation, but also shows the piece of equipment they’re looking at, including the equipment number. That helps when creating a work order,” Sullivan said.

Guided by an efficient roadmap through each substation, the inspector simply walks from point to point, making equipment assessments or taking measurements.

Wherever possible, Connexus wanted to use pull-down menus to eliminate cumbersome text typing. For an assessment, the inspector chooses from a pull-down value list on the computer screen. Values range from good to poor. A faded building sign, for instance, might be described as fair. If a work order is needed, the inspector can create and store it for later transmission. Measurements are entered using the mobile computer’s numeric keypad and a stylus.

Once the inspection is complete, the inspector locks up and moves on to the next substation. At the end of his shift, he heads back to the office. The Intermec mobile computer uploads its day’s cached data to the Connexus database via an Ethernet docking station.

The company’s CMMS now has same-day inspection data to analyze. Sifting through thousands of measurement points, it can compile a report on only those measurements outside the normal range. A maintenance manager can dispatch repair crews within hours instead of days or weeks. The chance for analysis oversights is greatly reduced.

In the end, Connexus management wanted a system that would rival many of the qualities of its own inspectors. Rugged. Resilient. Versatile. These are people who endure harsh conditions to ensure customers get the power they need. Why ask any less of the equipment they use?

Connexus plans to expand the system for other uses, including inventory control and managing outage crews. The utility sees major potential benefits for the mobile computing devices and CMMS in many areas.

Kelly Scott writes on a variety of technology subjects for business and industry and lives in the Midwest.

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